John the Lydian, ‘March’ from book 4 of “On the months” now online

The 6th century writer John the Lydian wrote a book De Mensibus, On the months, in which he gathered a great deal of antiquarian lore about the Roman world.  Book 4 of this work goes through the months, noting the festivals together with other information.

Some time back I commissioned a translation of “March” from book 4.  Mischa Hooker kindly undertook the work, and has done his usual splendid job.

The HTML version is here, and with luck will be mirrored at CCEL sooner or later.  The original Word .doc file is here:JohnLydusonMarch-final_version.

Both I place in the public domain; do whatever you like with  them, personal, educational or commercial.


From my diary

Back on the chain gang, moan groan … until I consider that there are many people who would gladly swap places with me!

I’ve just upgraded the memory in my laptop this evening from 4Gbto 8Gb.  It makes quite a remarkable difference to the speed of the machine.  The memory I got from, whose bit of software telling me what to get was quite useful.  Mind you, it gave me several choices at the same price, and I had to burrow through the unfamiliar specifications for a while to work out that one set of memory must be rather faster than the other.  How long it is, since I knew PC hardware in endless detail!

Meanwhile I have received a Word document from Andrew Eastbourne containing a translation of John the Lydian’s De Mensibus (On the months) book IV, chapter 3 (‘March’).  It’s very good indeed, and contains a lot of interesting material, and not merely about Roman dates and events.  When I get a moment, I shall upload it.

No news from Lightning Source, from whom I ordered a new proof copy a week ago.  I shall have to pester them, I see.


Back to Isidore of Pelusium’s letters

An email reached me today from a chap volunteering to take on a commission for some Greek and Syriac (and Armenian for that matter, although I have none in mind at the moment).  I’ve written back and asked for some details.  It might be nice to get him to do a few of the letters of Isidore of Pelusium, at least as a starter.

This reminded me that someone translated 14 of Isidore’s letters during the summer, and that — as I dimly remembered — I commissioned some more, as I remarked here.  I wonder if I ever published those 14 letters online?  I certainly meant to!  I paid for them, after all, and the last revision was rather good and rather readable.  I must hunt them out.  Meanwhile I have written to the translator asking what happened with regard to the next chunk. 

There’s no lack of material to commission.  There’s sermons by Chrysostom, such as the two on Christmas.  I think I listed a bunch of Chrysostom material some time back.

There’s also material by Severian of Gabala.  That reminds me that I ought to write to two other people, each of whom was going to do a sermon and neither of whom I have heard from since.  There is such a thing as being too busy, and I suspect I probably qualify!   But it illustrates why reliability is such a virtue in a translator. 

Then there are works by Cyril of Alexandria, such as his Apologeticus ad imperatorem, explaining himself after the Council of Ephesus.  There’s John the Lydian, On the Roman Months (De Mensibus), book 4 of which is intensely interesting.  Andrew Eastbourne translated the section on December for us a while back.  Indeed John’s work might form a nice volume three in the series of translations I am publishing, although I suspect a UV photographic copy of the manuscript might be a necessary precursor.

Who knows?  The email is welcome, and let’s see if we can get something done.


A translation of John the Lydian, “De Mensibus” 4.158 (on December)

Here’s a little translation that I commissioned of a page of book IV of John the Lydian “On the Months”.  It’s relevant to our discussions of bruma.  This translation is public domain – do whatever you like with it, commercial or educational.

The Romans customarily divided their citizenry into three [groups] and distinguished those who were suitable for arms, those [who were suitable] for farming, and those [who were suitable] for hunting; and the season of winter brings an end to these [pursuits]. For in it, neither do they arm themselves, nor do they practice farming, because of the season’s cold and the shortness of the days—and hence in the old days they named it bruma, meaning “short day.” And Brumalia means “winter festivals”;[1] so at that time, until the Waxing of the Light,[2] ceasing from work, the Romans would greet each other with words of good omen at night, saying in their ancestral tongue, “Vives annos“—that is, “Live for years.”[3]

And the farming people would slaughter pigs for the worship of Cronus and Demeter[4]—and hence even now the “Pig-Slaughter” is observed in December. And the vine-dressers would sacrifice goats in honor of Dionysus—for the goat is an enemy of the vine; and they would skin them, fill the skin-bags with air and jump on them.[5] And the civic officials would also [offer as] the firstfruits of the collected harvest wine and olive oil, grain and honey and as many [products] of trees as endure and are preserved—they would make loaves without water and they would bring [all] these things to the priests of the [Great] Mother.[6] And this sort of custom is still observed even now; and in November and December, until the “Waxing of the Light,” they bring [these] things to the priests. For the [custom] of greeting [people] by name at the Brumalia is rather recent; and, the truth [is],[7] they call them “Cronian festivals”[8]—and because of this the Church turns away[9] from them. And they take place at night, because Cronus is in darkness, having been sent to Tartarus by Zeus—and they mysteriously signify[10] the grain, from its being sown in the ground and thereafter not being seen. And this is quite true, as has been said: The attention to [these] things goes on at night, such that finally, in truth, the Brumalia are festivals of the subterranean daemones.


[1] Gk. Βρουμάλια δὲ οἱονεὶ χειμεριναὶ ἑορταί; alternatively, “…[function] as winter festivals,” but οἱονεί introduces the significance of a term just before, with bruma.
[2] Gk. τὰ Αὐξιφωτία, presumably referring to 25 Dec., as (e.g.) in the “Calendar of Antiochus” the date is marked: ἡλίου γενέθλιον· αὔξει φῶς. For the phrase, cf. also Cosmas of Jerusalem, Comm. in S. Greg. Naz. carm. [PG 38:464].
[3] Lit., “you will live for years.”
[4] I.e., Saturn and Ops, who were considered husband and wife, and whose festivals were associated at this time of year; some further considered them the equivalents of Heaven and Earth (Macrobius, Sat. 1.10).
[5] Cf. askoliasmos / Askolia, the name for such an “event” at the Rural Dionysia.
[6] I.e., the Magna Mater (Cybele) (?).
[7] Gk. τὸ…ἀληθέστερον; lit., “the truer [thing]” / “the quite true [thing].”
[8] I.e., Saturnian festivals (Saturnalia).
[9] Gk. ἀποτρέπεται; alternatively, “turns [people] away from them.”
[10] Gk. αἰνίττονται.


On “bruma” and “brumalia” in ancient Rome, as found in the OLD

There is a certain amount of wild talk around online about a festival of bruma, or the brumalia, connected with Christmas.  It would be interesting to find out what is truly known and discoverable from ancient sources about the nature and date of this event.  So I reached for the OLD!

According to the Oxford Latin Dictionary (p.243), the word bruma is the superlative of brevis (=short), i.e. breui-ma which became breu-ma.  Three meanings are listed.

1.  The shortest day, the winter solstice or the period during which this occurs, mid-winter; also (astronomical) the position of the sun at the winter solstice.

References are given for this:

ubi solstitium fuerit ad brumam Cato, Agr. 17.1; Varro L. 6.8.  eas (litteras) mihi post brumam reddiderunt Cicero ad fam. 3.7.3; dies continuos xxx sub bruma esse noctem Caesar, Gallic war 5.13.3; Vitruvius 9.3.3; Livy 43.18.1; Ovid fasti 1.163; Manilius 2.404; Columella Arb. 24; Pliny the Elder, NH 18.231; Terence Ph. 709; Cicero Div. 2.52; solis accessus discessusque solstitiis brumisque cognosci N.D. (?) 2.19.  (A couple more references to the latter meaning are also given)

2. Winter.

References are given for this, and also for a third meaning expressing “a winter” as a period of time.

The adjective brumalis is also listed, meaning “connected with the winter solstice”, the tropic of capricorn, or merely “wintry”.  For the first meaning it gives

Cicero Arat. 295 (61), de orat. 3.178, Div. 2.33; Lucretius 5.616; Ovid Pont. 2.4.25.

I need to look these up and tabulate them here.

A google search revealed remarkably little of substance, but apparently there is something in John Lydus, De mensibus (which we have met before!).  However doing the same search via an anonymising proxy reveals more.

John Malalas in his Chronicle 7.7 gives an account of the origins of the festival.  This tells us it was in the winter, and instituted by Romulus (or “Romus” as Malalas calls him).

Because of this Romus devised what is known as the Brumalia, declaring, it is said, that the emperor of the time must entertain his entire senate and officials and all who serve in the palace, since they are persons of consequence, during the winter when there is a respite from righting. He began by inviting and entertaining first those whose names began with alpha, and so on, right to the last letter; he ordered his senate to entertain in the same way. They too entertained the whole army, and those they wanted. . . . This custom of the Brumalia has persisted in the Roman state to the present day. — [The Chronicle of John Malalas, trans. E. Jeffreys et al. (Byzantina Australiensia 4, Melbourne, 1986), p. 95]

John the Lydian in his de Mensibus book IV discusses the Brumalia.  According to that secondary source it was celebrated between November 24 and December 17.  Apparently John says that the people all call it the festival of Cronos (i.e. Saturn).  Unfortunately I can’t see the references in that text.

Lydus’ description of the Brumalia, however, hints that the situation was not in fact quite so simple. This popular holiday, celebrated between November 24 and December 17, was a time of dinner parties and wishing one’s friends “vives annos.” It had an extremely long history connected with the celebration of the winter solstice, and Lydus gives many details of the pagan rites associated with it in antiquity. The holiday continued to be celebrated in Lydus’ time, for he notes that “to greet someone by name during the Brumalia is a rather recent development,” and more pointedly, “the truth of the matter is that people call this the festival of Cronos; consequently the Church shrinks away from this affair.” He goes on to tell about Cronos and the association of chthonic demons with the festival. If it were not for the mention of ecclesiastical disapproval, we would not know that the festival had any contemporary dimension at all. This is all the stranger because Agathias reported without censure of any sort that the Brumalia was being celebrated by the citizens of Constantinople at the time of a great earthquake in 577. Malalas also described the contemporary imperial celebration without flinching. We know that Justinian celebrated the Brumalia on a lavish scale with banquets and spectacles throughout the empire, as Choricius of Gaza’s Oration attests. In 521 Justinian had inaugurated his first consulship with magnificent entertainments during the Brumalia (on the day that began with the first letter of his name). As spelled out in Novel 105 some years later, this was in accordance with his attitude about the ceremonial responsibilities of the consulship to provide parades, games, and theatrical productions for the populace. The pious emperor felt no impropriety in celebrating the Brumalia together with the consulship. In another law concerning pagan worship, Justinian reiterated the idea that ancient festivals might be celebrated by his subjects – as long as no pagan sacrifices were performed. We see here the grounds on which he was prepared to celebrate time-honored festivals. He was no more concerned about the “paganism” of the Brumalia than he was about that of the consulship. Both were simply part of the secular ceremonial of everyday late-antique life, as far as the palace and the public were concerned. On one level de Mensibus can be seen as a simple expression of this interest and of the acceptance of certain civic celebrations.

Lydus’ comment on ecclesiastical disapproval, however, suggests a more complicated situation and requires that we look to a later period. Such ceremonial did not forever remain immune from charges of religious impropriety. By the end of the next century, attitudes would change considerably. The Quinisextum Council (“in Trullo” ) held in Constantinople in 692 proscribed in its sixty-second canon celebrations of the kalends, Vota, Brumalia, and Panegyris, festivals going on in Lydus’ Constantinople and all described in de Mensibus as they existed in Roman antiquity. Pagan associations that the church found merely objectionable in Lydus’ day assumed greater significance in the seventh century. Why did Lydus make a point of the church’s censure when the Brumalia was being celebrated without comment by the emperor and devout Christians? He evidently recognized its pagan (as opposed to merely antique) history, but did not wish to elaborate further. Perhaps the antiquarian material had not been completely neutralized after all. [Michael Maas, John Lydus and the Roman past, 1992, p.64-6]

Just as an aside, every time I read a passage of Maas’ excellent book, it makes my fingers itch to commission someone to translate the 111 pages of book 4 of de Mensibus!  Or even just the 8 pages on December!  It looks as if the passage is on p.174 (PDF p.276)  of the 1903 edition which is online. But back to the brumalia.

The festival was proscribed by the Quinsext synod (“in Trullo”) in 692.

Tertullian apparently also mentions the festival (De idololatria 14).

Suggestions are welcome as to where else we might look!

UPDATE:  Cato, Agricultura 17.1:

Robus materies, item ridica, ubi solstitium fuerit ad brumam semper tempestiva est. Cetera materies quae semen habet, cum semen maturum habet, tum tempestiva est.

Oak wood and also wood for vine props, is always ripe for cutting at the time of the winter solstice. Other species which bear seed are ripe when the seeds are mature, while those which are seedless are ripe when they shed bark.

Here brumam is used to mean “winter”, as an adjective for solstitium.  Or possibly “shortest solstice”?

Varro, De Lingua Latina 6.8:

Alter motus solis est, aliter ac caeli, quod movetur a bruma ad solstitium. Dicta bruma, quod brevissimus tunc dies est; solstitium, quod sol eo die sistere videbatur, quo ad nos versum proximus est. Sol cum venit in medium spatium inter brumam et solstitium, quod dies aequus fit ac nox, aequinoctium dictum. Tempus a bruma ad brumam dum sol redit, vocatur annus, quod ut parvi circuli anuli, sic magni dicebantur circites ani, unde annus.

8. There is a second motion of the sun, differing from that of the sky, in that the motion is from bruma ‘winter’s day’ to solstitium ‘solstice.’ Bruma is so named, because then the day is brevissimus ‘shortest’: the solstitium, because on that day the sol ‘sun’ seems sistere ‘to halt,’ on which it is nearest to us. When the sun has arrived midway between the bruma and the solstitium, it is called the aequinoctium ‘equinox,’ because the day becomes aequus ‘equal’ to the nox ‘night.’ The time from the bruma until the sun returns to the bruma, is called an annus ‘year,’ because just as little circles are anuli ‘rings,’ so big circuits were called ani, whence comes annus ‘year.’

This tells us that the bruma and the solstice are not the same.

Note: thanks to Bill Thayer for spotting the mistyping of De mensibus as De mensuribus! Oops!


Pricing John the Lydian, De Mensibus

I got hold of the 1898 text of John the Lydian and did some calculations.  There seem to be about 7 words per line, about 26 lines per page, and 177 pages of text.  That comes out at 32,214 words, which is probably a fair-ish estimate of how long the text is.

If I were to pay someone 10 cents a word to translate it, that would be $3,222.  I don’t have any such sum to spare, so I won’t do so.  But it’s interesting.  To a corporation such sums are almost petty cash. 

Ah, if I were a rich man…!


More on John the Lydian

It seems that at least some of the Tuebner editions of the works of John the Lydian are also on Google books. Daniel Abosso has written to tell me so, and to point out that the Bonn series text is defective, and the Latin translation sometimes quite wrong.  Here is the link (from a search for “lydi Wünsch”):

I still hope to get De Mensibus online.


Notes on John the Lydian, De Mensibus

Looking at the downloadable PDF, I find book 4 of De Mensibus (on the months) starts on p. 127 (p.50 of the printed text).  It is devoted to discussing events in the Roman calendar, month by month, so starts with January.  February starts on p. 138;  March on p.143; April on p.153; May on p.163; June on p.169; July on p.171; August on p.178; September on p.182; October on p.184; November on p.185; and December on p.186.  So the whole work is not very extensive.

IV.41 reads:

On day 11, the kalends of April, a pine tree is carried into the Palatine by the tree-bearers.  But the emperor Claudius instituted these these ferias, a man of such justice in judgement that…

This event looks like the carrying of the sacred tree into the temple of Cybele.  That the festival was created by Claudius again indicates the lack of Attis-related events in Republican times.

The short entry on December does not seem to mention Christmas, nor Saturnalia, nor any solar festival.

I can’t find any translations of De Mensibus, although a 1983 English translation of his work in 3 books on the Roman Magistrates exists, and a French edition and translation of the same work was made in 2006.  An Italian version of another of his works.  I’ve asked in the BYZANS-L if anyone is working on this text, and also emailed Prof. Jacques Schamp, who did the French translation of the Magistrates book.